Catastrophic Injury

Catastrophic injuries can cause permanent disability and disfigurement, affecting you for the rest of your life. And the money you spend on your medical treatment, surgery, and physical therapy can push you to the edge of bankruptcy.

These injuries can happen in almost any type of incident involving the intentional or negligent actions of others. Fortunately, you can often pursue personal injury compensation from the at-fault party and their insurer. This compensation has the potential to save you from the overwhelming medical bills and income losses you face after suffering a catastrophic injury.

What Is a Catastrophic Injury?

What Is a Catastrophic Injury?

The term “catastrophic injury” does not have a single legal or medical definition. In fact, the American Medical Association (AMA) advises its doctors to maintain a healthy boundary between medicine and the law by avoiding the use of terms like “catastrophic” that may carry legal weight in certain jurisdictions.

Instead, the AMA advises doctors to describe impairment without jurisdiction-specific labels. Thus, a doctor will probably focus on the severity or effects of your injuries instead of using terms like catastrophic or non-catastrophic.

When lawyers describe injuries as catastrophic, they usually look at three factors:

Systems Injured

Some definitions, including an outdated AMA definition, describe catastrophic injuries as:

Your spine supports your body. Your brain controls your body, and your spinal cord carries signals between your brain and body. Injuries to these systems strike at the core of your physical and mental existence.

Injury Effects

You can also define catastrophic injuries based on their impact on your life. Injuries with great severity or duration will qualify as catastrophic under this definition. 

Examples of effects that might qualify as catastrophic include the following:

  • Visible scarring or disfigurement
  • Permanent disabilities
  • Chronic or recurring pain
  • Persistent mental or emotional impairments

This definition of catastrophic involves injuries such as:

  • Burns
  • Blindness or deafness
  • Amputations
  • Paralysis
  • Brain damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This measure broadens the types of injuries that could qualify as catastrophic depending on their severity. For example, first-degree burns would probably not qualify as catastrophic, but third-degree burns could.

Economic Losses

Another definition of catastrophic injury uses the injury’s economic impact. Economists report that medical debt causes more bankruptcies than any other debt type. 

When you suffer an injury, you could face significant expenses for:

  • Ambulance transportation
  • Emergency room treatment
  • Hospital stay
  • Doctor’s appointments
  • Laboratory testing and imaging
  • Surgery
  • Physical therapy
  • Mental health counseling

Your injury might render you unable to earn a living, causing you to lose income during your recovery. And if your injury causes disabilities, you might need to change jobs or quit working altogether. These economic losses could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in the short term and millions of dollars over your lifetime.

What Are Some Examples of Catastrophic Injuries?

Using these definitions, some injuries that might qualify as catastrophic include:


Burns happen when a chemical reaction destroys your skin and soft tissues. 

Burn injuries can result from:

  • Flames
  • Hot objects, liquids, or gases
  • Radioactive materials
  • Caustic chemicals
  • Electric currents

First- and second-degree burns usually heal without any side effects. But third-degree burns involve damage to the full thickness of the skin. These burns harm the tissues underneath the skin, including muscles, connective tissues, and nerves. Severe burns can cause disfiguring scars, contractures, and nerve damage.

Burns can happen in almost any type of accident, including workplace accidents and incidents occurring on someone else’s premises, such as apartments, shops, and restaurants.

Loss of Hearing or Sight

Your brain uses inputs from your senses to control your body. When you lose your sense of vision or hearing, your body gets deprived of much of its information. This renders you unable to interact with the world in the same way as before your injury. And while you may learn to navigate in the world without your hearing or sight, you will always have some limits on your abilities.

Again, you may lose your ability to earn a living. You may also need to spend money on home modifications, occupational therapists, and assistive technologies to help you overcome your disabilities.

Brain Injuries

Your brain controls your nervous system by sending control signals to your muscles and organs. It also receives sensory signals from your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin and controls your cognition and emotions.

A brain injury can cause brain damage, coma, or death

When you suffer brain damage, you may experience a range of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Lack of attention span
  • Amnesia
  • Loss of balance
  • Clumsiness
  • Sleep disorders
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Personality changes
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Paranoia

These symptoms can make your life unbearable. They may even change who you are. And while your brain can reorder itself after an injury to try to regain some functionality, brain damage does not heal.

Brain injuries can result from head trauma. Thus, you could suffer a brain injury in a pedestrian accident when your head hits the pavement.

But brain injuries can also happen without head trauma. Violent shaking can tear brain tissues, producing concussions or diffuse axonal injuries (DAIs). These types of trauma often happen in car accidents as your body whips back and forth during a collision.

Nerve Damage and Spinal Cord Injuries

Nerve cells, called neurons, communicate with each other using a combination of electric charges and chemical neurotransmitters. When nerves get severed, the neurons cannot pass signals to each other. And severed nerves cannot heal, resulting in permanent losses.

Some symptoms of nerve damage include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Loss of dexterity
  • Weakness

The nerves of your spinal cord are extremely important. When trauma severs them, you will suffer from partial or total paralysis below the level of the injury. If you sever the spinal cord in your neck, you will have quadriplegia, also called tetraplegia. An injury in the back will cause paraplegia.

What Compensation Can You Pursue For Catastrophic Injuries?

If you suffer a catastrophic injury, your losses could be significant. If you can prove that your injuries resulted from someone else’s negligent actions, you can seek compensation for economic losses such as your medical costs, income losses, and expenses to modify your home. 

You can also pursue compensation for non-economic losses such as pain, emotional distress, disfigurement, and disability. These losses represent the injury’s impact on your overall quality of life.

Catastrophic injuries will alter your life forever. For that reason, they also justify large damage claims. Contact Roderick C. Lopez, PC for a free consultation to discuss the compensation you can seek for a catastrophic injury you or a loved one experienced.